Colorado Trail: Stony Pass to Celebration Lake

The very best section of the 483-mile Colorado Trail lies along this 40-mile San Juans stunner. Start at 12,500 feet and drop past hidden waterfalls into the Animas River Valley, where the Grenadier Peaks tower overhead.
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The very best section of the 483-mile Colorado Trail lies along this 40-mile San Juans stunner. Start at 12,500 feet and drop past hidden waterfalls into the Animas River Valley, where the Grenadier Peaks tower overhead.

For most of us, taking on the entire Colorado Trail is a distant, and rather unrealistic, dream. But hitting some of the best highlights in just a few days is in reach thanks to this 40-mile point-to-point route in the San Juans. Enjoy alpine solitude among some of the most astounding mounts and falls in the region. Catch postcard-perfect shots along the entire trail, especially near the Animas River and the teeming Cascade Creek Falls.
From the trailhead, which lies at 12,500 feet, begin by heading south six miles on the well-defined path. Meander through the treeless, alpine environment, passing remnants of a mining camp along the way. In spring, look for fields of wildflowers as you travel seven miles toward camp at Eldorado Lake or the Elk Creek Drainage area.
In the morning, begin the nine-mile descent into the cavernous Elk Creek Drainage area. Find water at a number of waterfalls that drop into the area. Enjoy the aroma of hillsides filled with Spruce and Aspen. Set up camp at the Animas River, where there are great views of the Silverton-Durango Narrow Gauge and the Grenadiers.

On the third day, feel the burn on a 1,900-foot climb over 4.5 miles to Molas Pass. Well-graded switchbacks make this section manageable and the breathtaking views of the San Juans don’t hurt either. During the summer, stop by the Molas Lake Campground for supplies and a hot shower. From here, continue nearly one mile, crossing the Million Dollar Highway (US 550), to Little Molas Lake Campground. Enjoy lunch and a view before finding a campsite. Several great spots lay between miles 25 and 27.5.

On day four, start the steady climb up Rollings Pass, enjoying sweeping views of the drainage on the descent to Cascade Creek. Hike to a campsite at mile 33, to rest for the climb on the last day. Wake up with Grizzly Peak standing tall overhead and begin the last climb up to a small pass on Sliderock Ridge. Keep an eye out for views of the pink and sand rocks of Engineer Mountain as you pass through trees in an old spruce forest. Enjoy the last stretch, through a grassy meadow, before reaching Celebration Lake.

CAUTION: Prepare for snow along this entire route until early July. 

PERMIT: San Juan National Forest has no formal backcountry permit or reservation system for small groups. Larger groups, as well as hikers looking for more information, are advised to visit the San Juan Public Land Center in Durango, CO for planning assistance, safety tips, directions, and regulations.

INFO: San Juan National Forest, (970) 247-4874; fs.usda.gov/sanjuan

-Mapped by Jeff Chow

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 64.1

Waypoints

CTR001

Location: 37.794264, -107.546153

About 500 feet past Stony Pass, look for a 4-car parking pull-off with signs for the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails. As you head out, look for remnants of an old mining camp. Continue southwest, past a tiny stream.

CTR002

Location: 37.789567, -107.5483

Here, the trail dips into a valley, alongside a small stream. Climb out past a small pond and over a broad ridge.

CTR003

Location: 37.785267, -107.55245

At .8 mile, hike through a steep gulley. Look for sweeping views of the Rio Grande National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness to the southwest.

CTR004

Location: 37.777717, -107.5556

At 1.4 miles, begin a descent through patches of hip-high brush while taking in views of the rocky climb ahead.

CTR005

Location: 37.77387, -107.555745

After a dip, follow the trail to the south and ignore the faint side trails, which come in from both sides.

CTR006

Location: 37.771483, -107.558317

Here, follow the signs and turn left at the T-intersection. The trail to the right descends into Cunningham Gulch.

CTR007

Location: 37.768283, -107.555683

Hike up the rocky trail to reach a small notch in the ridge. In .3 mile, pass a tiny stream and a pond on the left as you continue climbing to 12,600 feet.

CTR008

Location: 37.7604, -107.557483

Look for a shallow lake to the west before continuing into the exposed divide. Watch for Ptarmigans blending in with the rocks.

CTR009

Location: 37.757033, -107.556867

Pass a seasonal pond on the right before coming to a steep gorge with views of Vestal and Arrow Peaks in the distance.

CTR010

Location: 37.745472, -107.552934

Here, cross a small saddle in a broad divide. Continue about one mile on similar terrain.

CTR011

Location: 37.73155, -107.543083

At 5.5 miles, begin the descent to a small valley with four ponds. Continue to follow the signs and trail to the southeast. Keep an eye out for a number of good water sources ahead.

CTR012

Location: 37.72995, -107.538333

At the stream crossing, make sure to fill up - this is the last source until Elk Creek Drainage. In 0.2 mile, pass a pond and lush marsh area on the left.

CTR013

Location: 37.725867, -107.53205

Climb to this small pass where the trail splits from the CDT. Take a sharp right and head west up the grassy hillside, where the trail joins an old Jeep track.

CTR014

Location: 37.722163, -107.536261

At 6.5 miles, rejoin the alternate, guidebook-recommended route as you approach the hill.

CTR015

Location: 37.718967, -107.53625

From a height of 12,580 feet, soak in your last views to the east and the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande National Forest. Down below, spot a small mining cabin at the base of the rocky cliffs.

CTR016

Location: 37.718383, -107.536117

At the intersection, enjoy one of the best views on the Colorado Trail. From here, take a sharp right and descend on 27 graded switchbacks into Elk Creek Drainage. For a great first night campsite, continue straight at the intersection and follow an old mining trail to Eldorado Lake.

CTR017

Location: 37.717678, -107.539029

At 7.3 miles, the trail passes an abandoned mine before beginning a 9-mile descent.

CTR018

Location: 37.717122, -107.543149

Cross a small stream before reaching an abandoned miners' cabin. On the south wall, look for falls coming from Eldorado Lake.

CTR019

Location: 37.716778, -107.544217

Here, the trail runs alongside Elk Creek, between a short vertical fin of rock and the smooth north face. From here, the trail climbs away from the water's edge and up through a notch in the smooth rock wall.

CTR020

Location: 37.716689, -107.546368

Almost eight miles from the trailhead, a small stream joins Elk Creek. Strong sulfur deposits emit the classic rotten-egg smell and cover the rocks with a powdery, cream-colored coating. In about 500 feet, cross Elk Creek in a nutrient rich area, where algae flourishes.

CTR021

Location: 37.717232, -107.549286

Cross a small stream and look to the north for a skinny waterfall from ponds on the cliff's edge, 800 feet above. Ahead, look for the first scraggly conifers as the trail separates from the creek and climbs up the loose rocky hill.

CTR022

Location: 37.717843, -107.556753

Look for the waterfall off the south cliffside.

CTR023

Location: 37.717368, -107.560551

At 8.6 miles, as the trail descends back down to creek level, find a small campsite with water access.

CTR024

Location: 37.717467, -107.563817

Look for a faint trail leading to a riverside campsite.

CTR025

Location: 37.718631, -107.565562

At 9 miles, cross a stream and make the short side trip to a spectacular hidden waterfall. Along the next two miles, look for campsites along the creek.

CTR026

Location: 37.722567, -107.570517

Here, the steep vertical walls give way to a wider landscape.

CTR027

Location: 37.726367, -107.576517

Here, look for a waterfall and a small campsite.

CTR028

Location: 37.7243, -107.590733

Continue to look for campsites in this valley area. Also, in about 300 feet, pass a beautiful strand of aspens before entering an open field.

CTR029

Location: 37.722933, -107.597933

The trail here is smooth and wide, but don't let that fool you. The erratics to the left soon take over the treadway, making for a steep descent up ahead. In .6 mile, beaver ponds mark the end of this rocky section of trail.

CTR030

Location: 37.72075, -107.607583

At the beaver ponds, look for excellent campsites on the south shore. The sharp peaks of Vestal and Arrow Peaks guard the southern view.

CTR031

Location: 37.719829, -107.610719

For the next 1.5 miles, the trail departs from the valley floor and traverses the hillside.

CTR032

Location: 37.721667, -107.61415

At 12.3 miles, cross a stream.

CTR033

Location: 37.720467, -107.618117

Look for two campsites shortly after the stream.

CTR034

Location: 37.7209, -107.622617

Emerge from the trees along this steep cliff's edge to view a waterfall on the other side of the valley.

CTR035

Location: 37.721783, -107.62995

Continue to hike along the creek's edge for short sections on the way to Elk Creek Park and Animas River.

CTR036

Location: 37.726533, -107.6441

Say goodbye to Elk Creek before the trail climbs the steep hillside to the border of the Weminuche Wilderness. In 250 feet, be careful crossing a fast moving steam along a cliff's edge.

CTR037

Location: 37.7264, -107.650183

At 14.5 miles, spend one last night in the wilderness at a secluded campsite.

CTR038

Location: 37.7267, -107.65125

At 14.6 miles, pass through a strand of baby Aspens before reaching the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness, marked by an information sign. In 100 feet, keep right at the junction to continue on the Colorado Trail and descend to river level. Keep left to reach Elk Park and catch the Durango-Silverton Narrow-Gauge railroad.

CTR039

Location: 37.7321, -107.6594

At 15 miles out, the pond and railroad tracks mark the lowest point on this 40-mile stretch of trail. Follow the tracks to the north before veering off on a trail to the left. Relax and enjoy a view of the Grenadines at one of the campsites along the way.

CTR040

Location: 37.733475, -107.660866

After 15.3 miles, hike across a bridge over the Animas River. Stop for water at a reliable stream, about 500 feet past the river crossing.

CTR041

Location: 37.735083, -107.661517

Fill up at the stream here - this is the last water source on the way to Molas Pass. Also, prepare for switchbacks on the 700-foot climb to the pass.

CTR042

Location: 37.740417, -107.666783

At 16.5 miles and an elevation of 10,000 feet, take a side trail east to a clearing for grand views into the Animas River Valley with the Grenadines in the background.

CTR043

Location: 37.741683, -107.667333

Rejoin the thick pine forest as the trail continues to gain altitude.

CTR044

Location: 37.742467, -107.67055

At 17.2 miles, take one last view into the valley.

CTR045

Location: 37.741942, -107.673976

Prepare to be exposed to the elements through Molas Pass as the trail leaves the protection of the trees and heads into an open meadow.

CTR046

Location: 37.739767, -107.681917

At the Y-junction, fork right and continue the climb out of the valley.

CTR047

Location: 37.7405, -107.68585

Continue north at the Y-junction.

CTR048

Location: 37.743817, -107.686467

At 18.4 miles, continue straight at the junction. Take the side trail, which leads to a seasonal camp store, if you're looking for basic supplies or a hot shower.

CTR049

Location: 37.74481, -107.688208

Continue left at the junction. The trail to the right heads to a large parking lot and the trailhead for the section you just completed.

CTR051

Location: 37.742282, -107.691572

At 18.9 miles, cross a stream and climb one mile up to Molas Pass and US-550 on a section with a couple of switchbacks.

CTR052

Location: 37.739482, -107.698052

At almost 20 miles out, the trail reaches US-550, or the Million Dollar Highway. Cross the road and continue about 0.5-mile to Little Molas Lake.

CTR053

Location: 37.740704, -107.708019

Pass by Little Molas Lake, a popular fishing spot with free campsites in the campground beyond the lake.

CTR054

Location: 37.742483, -107.71185

At 20.7 miles, look for parking and toilets at Little Molas Trailhead. Follow the trail as it climbs 200 feet to Lime Creek Drainage.

CTR055

Location: 37.746583, -107.715533

Thank old Lime Creek Burn of 1879 for the big views to the south. Though not normally above timberline, trees, for the most part, remain absent from the area. Also, prepare to cross a small stream in a few hundred feet.

CTR056

Location: 37.74395, -107.725583

Take a sharp right and climb straight up the broad ridge on this deeply-rutted treadway.

CTR057

Location: 37.752367, -107.718967

At this junction, continue left to a sparse spruce grove. The trail to the right leads back to Little Molas Lake Campground.

CTR058

Location: 37.766283, -107.727017

Scramble over a large rock step with views into the valley to the north. Also, scan the skies for weather because this spot offers the last northward view for a stretch. Take the low or high road before beginning a gentle descent.

CTR059

Location: 37.765083, -107.744283

A 12-foot conglomerate rock marks a difficult stream crossing. Use caution, the stream falls 15 feet just off the edge of the trail.

CTR060

Location: 37.769217, -107.7536

As the trail descends toward the creek, look downhill for a campsite. Keep an eye out for wildlife in this area, where animals are active in the late evening and early morning.

CTR061

Location: 37.768561, -107.754958

At mile 25.8, stop at Lime Creek for water. Afterward, follow the trail around the marsh to a campsite downhill on a small bluff.

CTR062

Location: 37.7647, -107.756683

Enter the protection of the trees in this half-mile section of fern-covered spruce forest.

CTR063

Location: 37.764567, -107.76305

Catch a glimpse of the massive drainage ahead before crossing two tiny streams.

CTR064

Location: 37.766483, -107.77445

Here, look for a campsite with a great view of the valley. Also, look out for a number of enormous boulders along the trail for the next few miles.

CTR065

Location: 37.764778, -107.776866

At mile 27.7, stop at a large campsite with amazing views. Find water at a reliable stream just 100 feet back or at two large streams further down the trail.

CTR066

Location: 37.757633, -107.790417

At a large cairn, take a break from the climb and relax on a small hillside shelf.

CTR067

Location: 37.753467, -107.798967

Here, the trail runs adjacent to a stream, which appears as if it's coming out of the rock. In about 100 feet, peek into a small cave.

CTR068

Location: 37.746433, -107.8053

At mile 29.9, look for a weathered trail sign marking the turnoff for the Engineer Mountain Trail. Head right to stay on the Colorado Trail and round the edge of a small pond as you continue to climb to Rolling Pass.

CTR069

Location: 37.75085, -107.8155

After passing through a couple of exposed rock fins, continue straight at a 4-way intersection with the Rico-Silverton Trail. Ahead, make a sharp left to head up the pass.

CTR070

Location: 37.749333, -107.816717

If there's an easterly wind, be prepared for a gale as you cross Rolling Pass. Once out of the wind, check out a great view of the next drainage, which you'll enter by a series of switchbacks down and to the right.

CTR071

Location: 37.74201, -107.832398

At mile 32.2, take the side trail on the right to a campsite with a view of Grizzly Peak and a nearby pond for water. Once back on the trail, take a sharp right turn in 250 feet, where the Colorado Trail heads away from the White Creek Trail.

CTR072

Location: 37.740283, -107.839933

Cross the stream on a reliable rock bridge. Then, continue to descend on a series of gentle switchbacks. Ignore the intermittent game-trail that cuts straight down the hillside.

CTR073

Location: 37.738633, -107.842133

At the end of the last switchback, look for an easy-to-spot campsite.

CTR074

Location: 37.74125, -107.845567

Drop your pack near the large stream and take a break by scrambling up to check out the falls and intricate rock erosion above. Afterward, continue on the trail, which crosses multiple streams to Cascade Creek.

CTR075

Location: 37.747115, -107.848422

The trail crosses Cascade Creek right above two 10-foot waterfalls. Look for a number of campsites near the trail, on the east side of the creek.

CTR076

Location: 37.743766, -107.850605

Here, the trail crosses the stream and continues steadily out of the drainage.

CTR077

Location: 37.739702, -107.852236

From this viewpoint, look across the valley to the the waterfall you passed the day before. Look out for other great viewpoints as the trail gains elevation.

CTR078

Location: 37.728567, -107.854867

Round the ridge line and get a short break from the final climb of the trip.

CTR079

Location: 37.729883, -107.861667

Continue past an unmarked trail sign to the right.

CTR080

Location: 37.729983, -107.86605

Hike along the edge of a giant talus field before arriving at a murky stream. The white powder on the rocks may be an indicator of acid mine discharge uphill, so wait to fill up at one of the clean streams up ahead.

CTR081

Location: 37.726133, -107.86345

After a stream crossing, keep right to stay on the Colorado Trail. Take a left to hike down to fire road 579.

CTR082

Location: 37.722104, -107.86422

Here, look for a small campsite with two nearby streams for water.

CTR083

Location: 37.719583, -107.865333

A tiny stream marks the start of the last ridge. Pass by a faint trail on the right, which also leads to the fire road.

CTR084

Location: 37.71665, -107.864317

Round another ridge and look for a small campsite.

CTR085

Location: 37.715875, -107.866259

Leave the trees and head into the open for the final stretch of the climb. Check out epic views of Engineer Mountain and the Grenadines behind you.

CTR086

Location: 37.713483, -107.879617

At the top of Sliderock Ridge, take in the views on both sides before taking off on the descent. The trail to the left leads to Graysill Mountain, but continue to the right to stay on the Colorado Trail.

CTR087

Location: 37.717817, -107.880967

On the descent, curve to the left and join an old Jeep road.

CTR088

Location: 37.717833, -107.890183

With less than a mile left, re-enter the trees and turn left onto a dirt road. Follow the road for a half-mile, until you spot a trail sign and a small spur trail to the left.

CTR089

Location: 37.714933, -107.901133

Veer left here, at a Colorado Trail sign that points toward Celebration Lake.

CTR090

Location: 37.713277, -107.903348

Reach your destination at Celebration Lake, which lies below Bolam Pass and is close to Forest Road 578.

The Animas River from the Colorado Trail

Location: 37.7336, -107.6612

Stony Pass

Location: 37.794775, -107.547719

Sign for CT and CDT

Location: 37.794271, -107.546073

Old Mining Cabin

Location: 37.793686, -107.547162

Small alpine lake

Location: 37.7596, -107.557583

Alpine meadow

Location: 37.731583, -107.543117

First light on the Grenadiers

Location: 37.7241, -107.534267

Sunset at 12,600'

Location: 37.72231, -107.536242

No trees equal big views

Location: 37.722439, -107.536215

Vestal Peak at dawn

Location: 37.72238, -107.536232

Alpine grass

Location: 37.722486, -107.536197

Colorado Trail straight ahead

Location: 37.722165, -107.536218

Old mine shaft

Location: 37.717678, -107.538965

Old mine shack

Location: 37.717165, -107.542977

Notch in the rock

Location: 37.716783, -107.545183

Moss in the stream

Location: 37.717233, -107.548267

Nutrient rich water grows algae

Location: 37.71725, -107.54845

Sun behind vertical rock shelf

Location: 37.717423, -107.551233

Hidden waterfall

Location: 37.718616, -107.564599

Colorado trail by Elk Creek

Location: 37.7213, -107.568767

Aspen aglow in fall colors

Location: 37.722883, -107.599333

Vestal and Arrow Peak behind a beaver pond

Location: 37.720767, -107.6076

The valley up to Wham Ridge and Vestal Peak

Location: 37.721133, -107.613367

Mountain with bald tops

Location: 37.721017, -107.623467

Wildflower

Location: 37.7216, -107.6282

Pastel hillside

Location: 37.728483, -107.654533

Dusk on Point Pun

Location: 37.729067, -107.655133

The Durango-Silverton narrow nauge tracks

Location: 37.732133, -107.659583

The Grenadier Range

Location: 37.733133, -107.66055

Animas River Valley in the fall

Location: 37.736117, -107.66305

The train and smoke roll through the valley

Location: 37.740856, -107.677689

Gold fills the lower elevations

Location: 37.739363, -107.684212

Trail sign to Molas Lake

Location: 37.743841, -107.686516

Family fishing at Little Molas Lake

Location: 37.743028, -107.710176

Two hillside ponds

Location: 37.761317, -107.741697

As the trail begins to follow the contour to the right, look down at two small ponds.

Trail rolls past multi-colored bushes

Location: 37.765117, -107.744079

Gold fall ferns cover the floor

Location: 37.762132, -107.760258

Whitetail deer

Location: 37.76583, -107.76485

Cliffs line the hill tops

Location: 37.766, -107.765817

Small stream and rock overhang

Location: 37.766, -107.765817

The trail ascending Lime Creek drainage

Location: 37.75685, -107.792383

Cairn leads the way

Location: 37.750883, -107.8119

Grizzly Peak looming behind grassy fields

Location: 37.743517, -107.8309

Trail junction sign

Location: 37.74145, -107.833117

Cliff side and talus

Location: 37.745433, -107.84615

Cascade Creek falls just off-trail

Location: 37.747162, -107.848392

Snow falls on the high peaks

Location: 37.747141, -107.848387

Cascade Creek

Location: 37.747113, -107.848379

Cascade Creek Falls

Location: 37.746333, -107.848933

Fall colors on one leaf

Location: 37.730067, -107.863033

Looking up to Sliderock Ridge

Location: 37.715317, -107.873283

Peaks in the sun

Location: 37.71485, -107.875567

Sliderock Ridge

Location: 37.71349, -107.879509

Flat fields west of Sliderock Ridge

Location: 37.714017, -107.879783

Hermosa Peak

Location: 37.7176, -107.8876